First published by Rudaw

Part I: ‘Welcome to Kabul’ 

It wasn’t an encouraging start. Stepping off the airport shuttle bus at Hamid Karzai International, bleary eyed after a long layover in Dubai’s Terminal 2, my first impression of the Afghan capital Kabul is of a towering column of black smoke rising from the expat Green Village, which had been hit just hours earlier in a massive truck bombing. As I set down my bags on the hot tarmac, a cab driver nudges me, pointing at the menacing dark cloud. “Welcome to Kabul,” he grins.

I soon meet my local fixer, Saleem, a tall and broad-shouldered Tajik with wire-rim spectacles, dressed in light blue jeans – the kind you buy ready-frayed. Our young driver Reshad, meanwhile, is immaculately dressed in a checkered, charcoal grey suit that hangs loosely on his thin frame. As he pulls up in his white Toyota Corolla, I recall once being told this is the car of choice for suicide bombers. Pulling out of the car park and into the downtown traffic, the penny drops. Everyone here drives a white Toyota Corolla.

Kabul is greener and more developed than I expected – sharing the Soviet blockiness of other Central Asian capitals and the bustle of Indian cities, overlooked by pastel blue houses perched on rugged hillsides.

Despite the rash of bombings in recent weeks, Kabul’s streets are teeming. Men dressed in long salwar kameez swing strings of prayer beads as they walk, while others don Western attire, complemented by thin patterned scarves to keep out the sun and dust.

Several women, hair covered by floral headscarves, pick their way through the traffic, many without accompanying husbands or male relatives as had once been the law. Now and then I catch a glimpse of a sky-blue burqa – the full face veil women were forced to wear in the Taliban era.

Uzbek man, Chicken Street, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

Reshad drops us at the Park Star Hotel – a modern fortress among fortresses in Kabul’s commercial and diplomatic centre of Shahr-e-Naw. The high blast walls and incessant checkpoints leave the area feeling claustrophobic, blocking out the dramatic view of the Hindu Kush I had seen from the plane.

Once through the rigmarole of security, I find the hotel is much like any other in the world, except perhaps for the underground squash court that doubles as a panic room. A tacky water feature gurgles in the central courtyard overlooked by armed guards prowling like cats on the rooftop. This was my home for the coming week.

*

Peace talks between the United States and the Taliban had been rolling on in Doha for months. I arrived in Kabul just as a deal appeared imminent, one that offered the gradual withdrawal of America’s remaining 14,000 troops over a period of 16 months. In exchange, the Taliban pledged to never again shelter terrorists like Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

There were also vague commitments to a ceasefire and for inter-Afghan peace talks to end the insurgency. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in town with a draft copy of the deal to show Ashraf Ghani, the skeptical Afghan president. Unbeknown to the public, a meeting had also been scheduled at Camp David between US President Donald Trump and the Taliban leadership.

There is certainly an appetite for ending America’s longest war – now longer than WWI, WWII and the Korean War combined. Babies born after 9/11 are now old enough to serve as soldiers in Afghanistan.

The peace process was also taking place against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s presidential election, then scheduled for September 28. Election posters cluttered every street and roundabout I passed, the faces of Ghani and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah eyeballing me from every billboard and lamppost.

The Afghan government, viewed by the Taliban as a US stooge, was excluded from the Doha talks. The Taliban said it would only negotiate with Ghani’s side once an American departure was signed, stamped, and delivered.

Figures from Afghan civil society were permitted to attend a preliminary dialogue, first in Moscow, then in Doha, but only in a personal capacity.

The US deal – or what was publicly known of it – was not popular among Kabulies or Afghan political leaders. The only people who seemed pleased were the Taliban – who chalked up an American departure as another victory over an invading superpower, like the British and the Russians before them.

Significantly, Taliban attacks intensified the closer a deal came. The election period also saw an uptick in violence. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), July 2019 saw the highest number of civilian casualties for a single month in a decade.

In the first nine months of 2019 alone, UNAMA counted 2,563 civilians killed and 5,676 injured – 41 percent of them women and children.

Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said the appalling level of violence underlined the critical importance of peace talks.

“There is no other way forward,” he said.

Yet, on September 9, under pressure at home, Trump abruptly called off the Camp David meeting, tore up the draft deal, and declared the peace process “dead”.


Part II: ‘When women are in danger, it’s not peace – it’s surrender’

Many Afghans fear a peace agreement with the Taliban will cost them their basic civil liberties, in particular the rights of women.

Although Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees women’s rights, a stubborn combination of religious conservatism, tribal custom, displacement, and sluggish rural development has left Afghan women and girls trailing behind. And in areas under Taliban control, their chattel-like status has been further cemented.

I meet my documentary film crew in a nearby cafe over an Afghan lunch of soup, kabobs, rice, naan, and beans, washed down with green tea. The rice is thick with tender chunks of mutton, raisins, and lashings of oil. Although I’m groggy from a lost night’s sleep travelling, now made worse by the heavy meal, I’m eager to learn more about my new Afghan colleagues.

Hassan, our cameraman, is from the west side of Kabul, a predominantly Shiite area that routinely comes under sectarian attack.

Working part time for Afghanistan’s biggest domestic broadcaster, Hassan proudly shows me photos of his time working on set for Baghch-e-Simsim, Afghanistan’s very own version of Sesame Street.

The show courted controversy in 2017 when it cast its first female character, Zari, a hijab-clad puppet designed to teach Afghan boys respect for women.

*

After lunch we make our way to the Taj Begum, a cafe owned and run by Laila Haidari. She’s a formidable lady from the Hazara minority – a persecuted ethnic group thought to be descended from Genghis Khan. Her colourful cafe, staffed by recovering drug addicts, is one of the few places in Kabul where unmarried men and women can meet freely in public – much to the distaste of religious conservatives.

The cafe’s profits fund Laila’s rehab centre, the Mother Camp, which she launched in memory of her brother, Hakim. The young army officer had lived under Kabul’s Pol-e Sokhta bridge – home to many of the city’s addicts.

The Taj Begum, named after a princess of the Mughal Empire, is filled with neon yellow furniture, gaudy paintings, and quirky pottery. In the centre of the room where we meet sits a large tank of tropical fish.

When I ask Laila about the rights of women since the fall of the Taliban, she removes her bright yellow headscarf, revealing short, tightly curled black hair. “I can’t talk about the Taliban while wearing this,” she mutters.

“When I established a restaurant as a woman in Kabul nine years ago, that was very shocking for people, that a woman is running a restaurant. And this was not acceptable for people,” she says. “But now you see in every corner of Afghanistan, women run restaurants and run their own businesses.”

Laila Haidari, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

Women have become more assertive in recent years, but ingrained attitudes have been harder to change. And with the prospect of the Taliban reentering government under a peace agreement, Laila is concerned the bad old days may soon return.

“People insult us, the way we put on clothes is not acceptable for people. But no one can legally force us to wear our clothes in accordance with their wishes. Or your lifestyle must be according to their wishes,” Laila says. “But if the Taliban come to power, certainly we won’t have the authority to choose our clothes and our lifestyle. Because their ideology is against moral norms and for the removal of women.”

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan’s women were subjugated, forced to remain home and only permitted to venture out dressed in the all-enveloping burqa, while accompanied by a male relative. Girls’ schools were shut down and women forced out of the workplace. Those who defied this strict moral regime could be whipped as punishment or even stoned to death.

Just five days before my visit, a group of men, stirred up by local mullahs, came to Laila’s restaurant and began smashing things. They threatened the staff and even the vulnerable women sheltered in an adjoining dormitory. They accused Laila of running a brothel.

“We have witnessed plenty of violence in the last 18 years. Why? Because there is still a lot of Taliban mentality in this society,” she says.

“We can hear the Taliban’s footsteps. That they are entering into our society.”

The peace process offers little reassurance.

“My major concern is they will bring peace to Afghanistan and we women will go backwards and stay in our homes. They will put us before field courts and torture us in public every day.”

“We can feel those days.”

*

Laila’s fears were echoed by several women I spoke to that week. They too were keen to point out the toxic culture which threatens to roll back women’s modest gains.

“There will be no sacrifice,” Latifa Sultani says defiantly.

As the head of women’s affairs at Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, Latifa is well aware of the threat women face when their rights are not guaranteed.

“If the values of women’s rights and human rights are ignored for the sake of peace in the peace talks, that is not peace. That is just fire under ashes. It will be just a failed contract that will bring anarchy to Afghanistan that it will not be possible to compensate,” she says.

Click here to read Rudaw’s full interview with Latifa Sultani

Latifa and her colleagues document human rights abuses in all the far corners of the country and bring them to the attention of lawmakers and the central government. As a result, several of the commission’s researchers have been murdered.

Meeting me at her office on the outskirts of Kabul – a telling sign of the commission’s peripheral status – Latifa highlights the wide gulf between women in rural Afghanistan and those in the wealthier metropolis.

“In isolated places in Afghanistan, in some districts of Afghanistan, there is not full security,” Latifa says. “And we witness women being stoned and flogged. Women are shot by armed groups opposed to the government of Afghanistan. We witness field courts. And worst of all we witness murder by family members. Women are murdered by the closest members of their family.”

A huge number of Afghan women report spousal violence and abuse, yet male perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.

This impunity appears to run deep in Afghanistan’s official culture.

*

“For me there is no difference between the current government and the Taliban government,” says Dewa Niazi.

“I have heard that the Taliban were violating women, beating women and others. When we raised our voice for justice, we women were beaten by police. Our hands were broken. Blood fell from our faces.”

Dewa, 27, ran in the October 2018 parliamentary election in the troubled eastern province of Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan, where the Taliban controls several hamlets and the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) has blown up local girls’ schools. But it was the security forces of the democratic government who attacked her.

She was among 417 women who stood in that election – the highest number to date – determined to give women in Afghanistan’s distant provinces a strong voice in the capital.

However, she and several candidates say corrupt election officials stole their votes by imposing exorbitant fees. Unable to pay, their votes were redistributed and rival candidates were sent to parliament.

The women, from all corners of the country, banded together to protest the move, calling on the central government to intervene and restore their votes. When the government ignored their pleas, the women staged protests and pitched tents outside the presidential palace. Some went on hunger strike. Others sewed their lips together.

Afghan security forces did not hold back. Video footage has emerged of soldiers destroying the camp. Several of the women suffered broken bones.

Home insurance, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

“There is no difference between them for me,” Dewa says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the apartment where we meet on the outskirts of Kabul. “Both the Taliban and the current system commit the same violence.”

I have brought Dewa and several other provincial candidates together to discuss the reality of women’s representation and to hear their thoughts on the peace process. An armed guard patrols the terrace outside, an AK-47 under one arm, our host’s noisy toddler under the other.

Sitting in a semicircle, each woman in turn scorns the weakness of President Ashraf Ghani’s government – a weakness that does not bode well for inter-Afghan talks.

“Some women put up tents to campaign for justice, yet this Afghan government could not even satisfy a few women,” says Dewa, her pale features framed by a loose black hijab.

“Those Taliban who have fought for 18 years and who bleed Afghans simply for power – how can this Afghan government satisfy them? I think the Taliban knows talking to the Afghan government won’t be efficient.”

“When they can’t give women their rights, what will they give the Taliban who fought for 18 years?”

I ask the group what they think of America’s talks with the Taliban. They are unanimous in the view that America has effectively surrendered.

“America knows it has failed in Afghanistan during the last 18 years. They were not victorious,” says Nafisa Selay, a candidate from Maidan Wardak province.

“America has seen its failure and the peace process by Khalilzad is evidence of that. They have failed in Afghanistan and now they want to escape so they have meetings between Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha in the name of peace.”

Cutting in, Farzana Farahmand, who stood for election in Baghlan province, says the US talks have simply legitimised the Taliban, strengthening the group’s hand in negotiations with the Afghan government.

“How is it beneficial to the people of Afghanistan?” Farzana asks.

I am struck by the power of her oratory; the ferocity with which she speaks; her conviction. She readjusts her headscarf repeatedly while speaking, her gestures sending the mutinous yellow fabric creeping back from her brow.

“They want to bring the project of the Taliban back to Afghanistan by the name of peace. And give them political legitimacy. And give them a place in parliament and the system of Afghanistan. Recognise them officially. And then America can go back to its own place but leave their intelligence system and extract their military force,” she says.

So the prospects for peace aren’t good?

“Civil war will start in Afghanistan,” Farzana says. “And the involvement of Pakistan, Iran, and India will increase. And the next generation of Afghanistan will be the victims, as the people of Afghanistan were the victims in the last forty or fifty years.”

*

Almost two decades since the Taliban’s removal from power, Afghanistan is still far behind other nations on metrics of women’s health, reproductive rights, literacy, and leadership. Ironically, with a 25 percent quota for women in its parliament, the country actually outperforms the UK and the US for women’s representation.

Fawzia Koofi was the first woman to become vice president of Afghanistan’s National Assembly. She has become wealthy from sales of her New York Times bestseller, The Favored Daughter, a biography of her difficult upbringing in conservative rural Afghanistan. Sitting in her palatial home overlooking Kabul, I could have been in Beverly Hills, were it not for the power cuts and thumping Chinooks overhead.

Click here to read Rudaw’s full interview with Fawzia Koofi

“It’s the worst country to be a mother. If you look at all the indicators it has the lowest literacy rate for women, it has the lowest economy for women. So already we are an oppressed country for women,” Fawzia tells me in flawless English.

“How much more shall we compromise? I don’t think it’s realistic and it shall also be logical to expect women to give up – we don’t have enough to give.”

Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

Fawzia took part in the preliminary inter-Afghan talks in Moscow and Doha. I ask her to describe the sensation of meeting her one-time oppressors face-to-face.

“To sit in one room with the Taliban and to face them for the first time after the government has fallen in Afghanistan was not an easy experience,” she says.

“Every woman who lived in Afghanistan paid the price of Taliban government. Personally, they have stopped education for me and many other women, they put my husband in jail, I have seen women who were beaten up in front of my eyes, I have seen horrible things happen. So every Afghan in Afghanistan remembers those memories. And to therefore go with those memories and face the Taliban is not a nice moment. It is not a pleasant atmosphere.”

Whatever her personal feelings toward the Taliban, Fawzia believes Afghanistan’s leaders have a responsibility to secure peace.

“At the end of the day I believe that we have to talk because there is no war you can win with war. You have to win war with peace. And then you have to talk because you have to end this bloodshed. And the people of Afghanistan expect that.”

*

Back at the Taj Begum, Laila isn’t convinced women like Fawzia, from the country’s elite, can stand up for her rights. Whatever happens, those at the top will be shielded, she says.

“Those women who participated in the talks are not capable of talking on behalf of a woman who doesn’t have any protection in society,” Laila says. “They are not able to represent our voice and our struggles … Even if the Taliban takes power, it won’t affect their lives.”

Sitting in her garden sipping chai, Laila asks me about the rights of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where I have lived and worked for almost two years. I take out my phone and show her photographs of traditional Kurdish clothing, with its bold colours, sparkling sequins, and uncovered hair worn long – evidence of a moderate Islamic culture. She smiles admiringly.

I ask whether she’s optimistic about peace.

“When the women of my country are in danger, it’s not peace,” she says. “It’s surrender.”

Part III: Press freedoms and the Taliban revival 

The rights of women are not the only liberties potentially at stake if an inter-Afghan peace deal returns the Taliban to power. Freedom of the press is seen as a major achievement of the post-2001 order, with newspapers and broadcasters springing up across the country. Yet, as the security situation declines, attacks on media workers have risen, making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

On September 5, 2018, Samim Faramarz, a star correspondent for Afghanistan’s top broadcaster Tolo News, was sent with his cameraman Ramiz Ahmadi to report on a blast at a wrestling club in west Kabul. Minutes after delivering their live report from the scene, a second bomb exploded, killing them both. The attack was later claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) – a bloodthirsty rival of the Taliban.

A day before the first anniversary of their deaths, I paid a visit to Tolo’s studio to meet the company’s director, Lotfullah Najafizada.

Lotfullah is young for a man in charge of such an influential outlet, which regularly hosts top officials, strongmen, and key players in the peace process. Just that week he had personally interviewed President Ashraf Ghani and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Although he is at least a head taller than I am, sharply dressed in a well-cut suit with stylish thick-rimmed spectacles, he is also softly spoken, thoughtful, and instantly likeable.

I ask him about Samim and Ramiz.

“It’s very tragic. We’ve lost 11 colleagues in the past three and a half years in many, many attacks. Two or three of them are claimed by the Taliban and others are claimed by Daesh,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

“It’s not just Daesh, it’s not just the Taliban, but mafia, drug lords, strongmen. And Afghanistan is also one of the countries where the rule of law is least implemented.”

In 2018 alone, 13 Afghan journalists were killed on the job, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The International Federation of Journalists put the figure at 16. Either way, it was the deadliest year for Afghan journalists since 2001.

In June this year, the Taliban directly threatened Afghan media outlets, demanding they stop broadcasting “anti-Taliban advertisements”.

“Those who continue doing so will be recognised by the group as military targets who are helping the Western-backed government of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s military commission said. “Reporters and staff members will not remain safe.”

How do journalists continue to work with such a threat hanging over them?

“It’s difficult to report on people who might not like the way we report, and they have the means to harm you and hurt you,” Lotfullah says.

Sitting in his small, windowless office that opens onto a balcony overlooking the studio floor, the Tolo boss says although the threats and attacks have taken a toll on the work culture there, his staff are committed to upholding the principles of their hard-won press freedoms.

“I think I can speak on behalf of all of my colleagues because the people who work in media, particularly in Tolo, they may have the option of going abroad, taking their families out, doing something much different, much easier. But their commitment to the cause of freedom and freedom of expression I think is something that contributes to the success of where we are,” he says.

“I’m not saying that they have developed this ‘resilience’, because sometimes you really hate that word, working in places like Afghanistan … but it’s different when it becomes personal. It’s different, it’s more impactful when it’s your loved ones, your colleagues, people you work with very closely like Samim and Ramiz.”

I ask whether Tolo ever self-censors as a result of the threats.

“I think it has changed the culture. We’re more cautious with how to do reports on security stories. We think twice whether we should cover or not. But at the same time we are also reminded on a very usual basis that this is our job. This is what we subscribed to,” he says.

Click here to read Rudaw’s full interview with Lotfullah Najafizada

Many of the Western media’s household names cut their teeth in Afghanistan covering the mujahideen war with the Soviets. But once the last Russian tank rolled back over the Oxus in 1989, Western interest evaporated. By the time the Taliban seized power in 1996, the country had gone dark. Fundamentalists destroyed television sets and cassette players, cutting Afghans off from the outside world. One radio station controlled by the Taliban continued to air, trotting out propaganda. Anyone caught listening to foreign broadcasts could be killed.

Foreign journalists flooded back after 2001 and saturated Kabul during Barack Obama’s troop surge of 2009. But, with the formal end of combat operations in 2014, a worsening security situation, and the allure of sexier bylines to be had in Iraq and Syria, the press pack again moved on, leaving Afghan coverage to the Afghans themselves.

Now, with the Taliban’s resurgence, free and independent domestic media is again at risk of going dark.

Lotfullah took part in July’s preliminary inter-Afghan dialogue in Doha, meeting Taliban negotiators face-to-face. I ask him whether the press freedoms enjoyed over the past 18 years could soon be rolled back.

“Afghanistan today, two-thirds of the country are under 25. Do they remember how the Taliban era looked two decades ago? Do they really remember how it feels to not have a free press, not be free enough to post a comment on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter? Can they really imagine, this generation, the two-thirds of Afghans, 60-70 percent of the entire country, can they really imagine that they will be asked what to wear, how to act, how to travel?”

“I think there will be a big backlash, because this generation owns some of these achievements. These are not introduced to them. It’s not like when you learn a language when you’re in your twenties, or thirties or forties. This is the only language they know. And you can’t take it away from them. So I believe that it’s in their DNA, what we have achieved in the past 18 years. It is something that an entire new generation has grown up with. So, what will happen if you deprive them of all these rights and gains? You won’t get peace. That’s civil war. That’s conflict. That’s continuation of violence.”

Lotfullah suddenly becomes pensive, contemplating perhaps just how difficult a compromise will be in practice.

“Almost all of us have people in our families who have lost their lives to this conflict. I think the entire nation is tired of it,” Lotfullah says. “So we should certainly give it a try and embrace the opportunity. Even if it comes to swallowing some bitter pills.”


Part IV: Aid sector prepares for peace

The United Nations compound in the centre of Kabul, where many Western embassies are also housed, is a gigantic concrete sprawl. The monotonous grey is broken only by the occasional mural championing press freedoms or condemning child marriage. It is a place of straight lines, procedures, spreadsheets, and cleanliness – so unlike the tangled, complicated world that is Afghanistan just feet away. Many of the humanitarians ensconced here rarely step beyond the tall blast walls. It suddenly dawns on me that I haven’t seen a single Westerner since leaving Dubai.

Ian Ridley is the head of UN OCHA in Afghanistan, responsible for humanitarian coordination across the country. After a forensic search of our camera equipment, we are granted access to his office at Palace 7 – a stately home from the time of Afghanistan’s ill-fated monarchy, complete with its own peacock.

Many of my close friends are humanitarians, who freely admit they live a world apart from the contexts in which they work. Here they call it the Karbubble.

“Human beings are economic beings, so they will leave the country for reasons of economics, if their livelihoods are not sustainable,” Ian says, referring to Afghanistan’s 2.5 million registered refugees – although he could easily have meant expats.

The OCHA chief meets us in an ornate conference room, decked out in the UN’s signature blue. “A corporate colour,” he says with a wan smile.

Ian is friendly, welcoming, and, like many Brits, deeply self-deprecating. But he hasn’t got where he is being loose-lipped around journalists. His non-specific answers and polished soundbites are trotted out with the poise and surefootedness of a ballerina in a minefield.

“Conflict has a detrimental impact on the economy. We see that not only here but around the world. And countries that don’t experience conflict on an ongoing basis tend to prosper.”

Ian is on the money here. Afghan workers and businessmen I spoke to that week said they are barely scraping by as the security situation keeps customers at home and eats away at their income.

“By God, there is no work in this country, there is no security and every day there is a suicide attack,” one man told me at his workshop in Shoda Street, where he and his family have been making traditional clay tandoor ovens for the past 40 years. “We come here and just waste our time then go back home. We were selling five, eight, ten, 12 tandoors every day. But now if we sell one or two weekly we are very happy.”

Tandoor maker, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Hassan Nikzad

I hear the same from a carpet salesman near my hotel, who sold me a handwoven rug from Herat decorated with a startling motif of tanks and helicopter gunships. “Security affects our business,” the salesman tells me. “If security is good, there will be more customers. If security is not good, naturally customers also disappear.”

The majority of Afghanistan’s refugees are in Pakistan – 1.5 million of them – where the Taliban continues to cultivate recruits and financing. Around 3 million Afghans have migrated west in search of work in Iran, where many young men have been recruited to fight for the Tehran-backed Syrian regime in the Fatemiyon division.

Others have fled further into Turkey en route to Europe. Afghans and Syrians make up the majority of the 63,000 refugees who have already risked their lives crossing into Europe this year. Some secure asylum there, or in the US or Canada. Others, like the Afghan teenagers I’ve met camped out near the French port town of Calais, often turn back or simply drop off the grid.

A sudden outbreak of peace will no doubt throw up new humanitarian challenges as areas of Afghanistan currently out of bounds to aid agencies open up and refugees return en masse.

“The best thing the aid sector can do is to be ready for when peace does come,” Ian says.

Click here to read Rudaw’s full interview with Ian Ridley

“There are parts of the country that we currently can’t get to, or we can’t get to regularly. There are a few small parts of the country that we can’t reach at all. And of course we very much hope that as a result of peace we can access those people. So readiness is the most important thing.”

But the aid sector is at pains to keep out of politics.

“We do stand back from that political process. Humanitarians don’t want to be involved directly in that political process. But we can use the time that this process is ongoing to get ready to benefit from peace and reach those people that we haven’t been able to reach for the last weeks, months, and in some cases years.”

If peace talks fail altogether and Afghanistan slips back into civil war, the country will struggle to cope.

“We hope that peace will come and things will improve,” Ian says. “If the opposite happens, and we hope that doesn’t happen, but if the country does slip in the other direction, then clearly humanitarian needs will grow, displacement will grow, there will be even fewer young children, especially young girls, in school.”

“The social infrastructure of the country will be strained. Hospitals, the water facilities, and of course it will have a massive negative impact on the economy. We must remember that the vast majority of people in this country rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. And so that twin shock of increased conflict and what we’re seeing already in climate change would have a devastating impact on Afghanistan.”

Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

Since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) began tracking civilian casualties in 2009, some 100,000 Afghans have been maimed or killed. Last year, Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest conflict for children, leaving 927 dead.

According to OCHA’s own data, 6.3 million Afghans – around one in five – required some form of humanitarian assistance in 2019. UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, said 3.8 million children needed humanitarian protection this year.

And aid workers themselves are not exempt from harm. This year alone, 27 have been killed in the field.

OCHA requested $611.8 million from its donors to meet this year’s demands. As of October, the agency was 30 percent short.

There are disincentives for donors to deliver, however.

In September, the US cut $160 million in direct funding, accusing Afghan officials of failing to tackle endemic corruption – a rot that has spread to every level of government, bolstering support for armed opposition groups.

Afghanistan is the world’s eighth most corrupt country, currently ranked 172 out of 180 countries by Transparency International.

“In the short term, official development assistance has prevented the collapse of the Afghan state’s core functions,” reads an April 2019 report by Transparency International.

“However, donors’ highly fragmented, poorly executed stabilisation and democratisation measures have strengthened structures of neo-patrimonial governance and allowed parallel structures of service delivery to develop. Moreover, an unknown but significant amount of development assistance ends up funding various armed factions.”

Over the past 18 years, billions have been spent on development, governance, stabilisation, capacity, and all manner of things from the humanitarian glossary. Was it all worth it?

“I think humanitarian aid is always worth it,” Ian says.

“I think the question of has it been worth it is really like asking has it been worth it having an emergency department in a hospital. It’s necessary, it’s needed, it needs to be there. Of course what we would like is for nobody to require the services of that emergency department, but that currently isn’t the world we live in.”

Perhaps I’m being too negative, ever mindful of aid’s disruptive impact on local markets, its role in corruption, and the vast sums squandered on salaries, perks, and per diems. But without it, the suffering here and in all the world’s trouble spots would be far more acute.

“If you’re not a natural optimist, this work isn’t for you,” Ian says, sensing my concern. And in Afghanistan, I gather, this energy and optimism is needed more than ever.

“Now is not the time to take our collective eye off the ball.”


Part V: A date with Terry Taliban

I must have been sleeping deeply, because I don’t remember hearing the blast.

When I awake, it’s to news of a car bombing at a checkpoint in east Kabul not far from my hotel, near the NATO HQ and the offices of Afghan national security authorities. Ten civilians and two NATO soldiers, including an American and a Romanian, had been killed and more than 100 people wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

The attack changed everything. US President Donald Trump would use the September 5 attack to abruptly call off peace talks with the Taliban, just as a deal appeared imminent. In reality, Trump was under pressure at home for inviting the Taliban to Camp David just days before the 9/11 anniversary.

As I hurry through the hotel lobby to meet my fixer Saleem, I pass a television screening scenes of the smouldering, debris-strewn aftermath. The receptionist urges me to stay indoors.

I am nervous – not so much about secondary attacks, but for the potentially dangerous interview I have lined up that evening.

While we wrap up the afternoon’s appointments, Saleem confirms what I’ve been waiting to hear – a meeting with Sayid Mohammed Akbar Agha, former commander of the Taliban splinter group Jaish-al Muslimeen.

As a proxy of the Taliban – or ‘Terry’ as British troops like to call them – I urgently need to hear his take on the peace process.

Akbar Agha was jailed in 2004 for his role in the kidnapping of three UN workers. He was first held in Pakistan before being moved to Pul-e-Charkhi – Afghanistan’s biggest and most notorious prison.

He was pardoned by then-president Hamid Karzai in 2014 and released. Now he heads Shura-e-Aali Rah-e-Nejat, the High Council of Salvation, agitating for a full US withdrawal, inter-Afghan talks, and an Islamic emirate under sharia law.

Visiting the home of a convicted kidnapper who fosters ties with the Taliban is not advisable at the best of times. With the peace process crumbling before our eyes, it was downright stupid.

It is already dark when we pull up outside Akbar Agha’s compound. The area is badly neglected and poorly lit, with potholes in the road so big we have to stop to reattach the rear bumper. We pass beggar children and dilapidated buildings, the odour of an open sewer so strong it practically climbs into the back seat. Saleem had called the local security chief and warned him where we are going. He’d agreed to station men nearby to watch the house.

Akbar Agha’s men greet us at the gate, cradling their aged AK-47s. I can hear children playing nearby, which puts me a little more at ease. We remove our shoes and are shown to a spartan guest room with cushions laid neatly around the circumference. The carpet is deep red and the yellow lights are dim. Although it is dark outside, I can make out the shape of an armed man patrolling outside the window looking in.

While we wait for Akbar Agha’s arrival, the mullah’s assistant brings a tray of chai in glass cups, which he distributes to our film crew. Given the strict Pathan code of hospitality, I took it as a deliberate snub when I, the farangi, was not handed a cup.

The chilly atmosphere warms a little when the man himself arrives.

Slinging his woollen patu over his shoulder, filling the room with a waft of incense and sandalwood, Akbar Agha extends a large hand for me to shake, bowing his black turbaned head respectfully, his long beard brushing his barrel chest. His tribe, the Sayid, claims to trace its ancestry back to the Prophet. A spot of yellow sauce from an earlier meal soils an otherwise immaculate salwar kameez.

With Saleem’s help, we conduct our interview in Pashto. The mullah sits rigidly in his hard wooden chair, absentmindedly thumbing a string of black prayer beads as he speaks in a slow, solemn tone.

“I am a scholar, a religious scholar. I had a big front of Taliban in the time of the jihad against the Russians. Indeed some of the current ministers of the Taliban were in my front as mujahideen,” he says.

“During the Taliban time, I spent time on the military lines and in other places. And then when the Americans came, we didn’t like their entry.”

He can barely conceal his glee at the prospect of a full US withdrawal, a prerequisite for the Taliban entering formal talks with the Afghan government. But he also feels after decades of war that the time for fighting is finished and the sides must negotiate a solution.

“I think that both the Taliban and maybe the government also know that war is not the way of solving the issue and it is required to sit down for meetings,” says Akbar Agha.

“Of course if the Taliban takes over provinces and Kabul through war, it is still required to hold a meeting. If opposition groups come and show disagreement, the Taliban are compelled to meet them. This country does not have the capacity for more war. I believe it is required and maybe the Taliban also feels this requirement.”

Click here to read Rudaw’s full interview with Sayid Mohammad Akbar Agha

The question is, what kind of system would the Taliban accept in order to lay down their arms?

“There is no doubt, sharia,” Akbar Agha says with emphasis.

“Islam is our religion. We are Muslims. The Russians were opposed to our religion. We waged jihad and operations against them. We forced them to leave our country. We did all this to bring an Islamic system here for Muslims.”

“Of course Allah has supported us. The Russians had a huge military and power while Afghans had nothing.”

“This war was started for Allah and an Islamic system for Muslims. That is my belief.”

Soviet tanks abandoned after the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 rust outside Kabul. Photo: Hassan Nikzad

Warming to his theme, the mullah says peace can only be guaranteed under a sharia system and with the departure of foreign forces.

“Now we say for anyone who comes to Afghanistan, and we tell this government, to bring an Islamic or Muslim system or the sharia of Muhammad to this country,” he says.

“There will be no question of the Taliban proceeding with war. Because under the sharia system foreigners will leave and those people who come into government will know about sharia. A system will come according to the Muslims. For sure peace will come here and there will be no war.”

“I think the Taliban will call for a sharia system and none other.”

The Taliban emerged out of the chaos of civil war. After the Russian departure in 1989, the victorious mujahideen set its sights on the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah. Despite his isolation, Najibullah held out until 1992 when the mujahideen finally seized Kabul. He would spend the next four years hiding in the UN compound.

The mujahideen victors were divided, however, each with his own ethnic base, territories, sources of income, and foreign backers. The predominantly Tajik followers of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Uzbek fighters of ex-communist general Rashid Dostum, and the Pashto Islamists of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar battled it out in the streets, devastating the capital.

Mullah Omar, an obscure local cleric who had fought in the mujahideen before returned to his village in Kandahar, was sickened by the corruption and criminality of the warlords and their militias. Banding together a group of mullahs and religious students, he began clearing local checkpoints and seizing territory.

His movement quickly spread, welcomed by a population desperate for security and justice. Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency soon switched allegiance from Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami and began funding the Taliban.

In 1996, the Taliban took Kabul. The mujahideen leaders fled and established the Northern Alliance to resist further Taliban expansion. Najibullah meanwhile was seized from the UN compound by Taliban fighters who shot him, castrated him, and hanged him from a lamppost.

The new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was initially recognised by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

One key backer of the new regime was Osama bin Laden – a wealthy Saudi sheik who had armed, funded, and fought alongside the mujahideen. He and his Al-Qaeda outfit had initially been welcomed by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a mujahideen leader, after bin Laden’s 1996 expulsion from Sudan.

In Afghanistan’s political and geographic isolation inherited by the Taliban, bin Laden could freely plot his attacks on the US.

Already a global pariah for its brutal subjugation of women and its destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden after 9/11 led to its downfall.

When the US teamed up with the Northern Alliance and invaded Afghanistan in 2001, bin Laden was able to slip over the Tora Bora mountains. He wasn’t heard from again until Seal Team 6 caught up with him in 2011, over the border in Pakistan – Washington’s alleged ally in the war on terror.

Mullah Omar and the Taliban also went to ground. Confident that Western armies would eventually leave – as history shows they always do – all the Taliban had to do was survive.

Despite the billions spent by the US to bolster Afghan forces, the Taliban has continued to grow since the formal end of combat operations in 2014. Now the sides have been forced to negotiate.

I ask Akbar Agha what a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban would mean for civil rights – for women in particular.

“Of course, women might have to give up some rights,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“For example there may be some women who want more freedom, a freedom which is out of Islam’s structure. So maybe the Taliban or another government which comes from the Islamic tradition, Islamic religion, and Islamic basis, that government will tell them according to Islam that you have invaded on the rights of others. Or for example you had no contentment in your rights and have taken more rights, which will be taken back.”

Sayid Mohammed Akbar Agha, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

And what about suicide attacks, like the one that morning near my hotel? How does the Taliban justify the killing of civilians to meet its goals?

“It is a huge issue. Suicide, martyrdom, someone who says I am giving sacrifice is a big issue,” he says, deliberately skirting the point.

“I think until now there are many muftis who support that position. I myself have not reached a place where I can say whether it is right or wrong. The Taliban themselves have very good scholars and muftis. They may do it according to their muftis or others, I can’t say anything. It is related to them.”

I was never going to get a straight answer from him, but his failure to rule out the practice repulsed me.

“There is an idiom in Pashto. Tongue is mild and turns everywhere,” he says obscurely.

“Americans talked the other day about destroying Al-Qaida and convincing the Taliban to join talks, and I think they consider this a success.”

“But if we hear from people around the world, the real success and failure is when someone else says whether you are successful or have failed in this country.”

“I think all other people will say that America has failed.”

Saleem wants his photo taken with Akbar Agar. I oblige, but decline one of my own. I want to leave.

After awkward goodbyes, we pack up our equipment and shuffle out, not stopping to tie our bootlaces. Barreling into the car, we reverse back up the narrow street and turn a corner. Saleem hops out and with the light on his phone scans the underside of the car for explosives.

“Good to have you back,” the Park Star receptionist says as we enter the hotel lobby.

Bloody good to be back.

Part VI: The Lion of Panjshir 

Ahmad Shah Massoud is Afghanistan’s national hero. Giant portraits of the Tajik guerrilla chief in his signature pakol hat hang ostentatiously from public buildings in Kabul, his careworn expression captured by muralists on blast walls and on gaudy banners throughout the city.

His iconic stature has echoes of other famed military strategists like Che Guevara or Mao Zedong. Even my driver Rashad’s Toyota bares Massoud’s face on a cardboard square dangling from the rearview mirror, nodding approvingly as he battles the city traffic.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Rob Edwards

Massoud was celebrated for his military prowess while defending his native Panjshir Valley from repeated Soviet attack in the 1980s, earning him the job of defence minister in Burhanuddin Rabbani’s short-lived mujahideen government. After the Taliban seized power in ’96, Massoud returned to the mountains as commander of the Northern Alliance.

In April 2001, Massoud went to Europe in search of funding to sustain his war. He found a ready ear among world leaders appalled by the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan a month earlier. While there, Massoud was invited to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. His speech was remarkably prescient, warning the West would pay a heavy price if it allowed extremism to fester in Afghanistan.

Five months later, three hijacked passenger jets slammed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. A fourth ploughed into a Pennsylvania field. The catastrophic attack, the worst to strike US soil since Pearl Harbor, fired the first shot of what would become an open-ended war on terror.

The Northern Alliance became Washington’s top ally in the battle to ‘smoke out’ America’s most wanted, Osama bin Laden, from his Afghan hideout.

Massoud wasn’t around to see his grim prophecy come to fruition, nor was he there to benefit from the resulting largess. The 49-year-old ‘Lion of Panjshir’ was killed just two days before 9/11 by a pair of Tunisian Al-Qaeda assassins posing as journalists, who detonated a device concealed inside a video camera. To this day, security guards in Kabul pay close attention to camera equipment, repeatedly screening my humble Canon for secreted explosives.

Hamid Karzai, the former president, declared September 9 ‘Massoud Day’ in recognition of Afghanistan’s martyred hero. My lasting memory of this national holiday is of sporadic gunfire as armed supporters of Massoud’s tribe charged around Kabul in decorated pickups, loosing off celebratory rounds into the sky. It’s quite a spectacle, best enjoyed under a solid roof.

“The hospitals will be busy today,” says my fixer Saleem, who has donned his own pakol and scarf for the occasion. We’re scouting locations for a piece to camera and have driven up to Wazir Akbar Khan – a hilltop park in the centre of town topped by Afghanistan’s largest national flag, billowing, slightly threadbare in the hot wind.

Some kind of memorial park is under construction, funded by the Indian government, next to a dirty Soviet-era swimming pool with tattered bleachers and an Olympic diving platform. Groups of young men draped in Massoud flags roam the park, taking selfies with the dramatic backdrop. We watch as military helicopters buzz around the city below, landing and taking off like steel bees pollinating beige concrete flowers.

Standing at the ledge, listening to the crackle of gunfire, I wonder what Massoud would have made of the peace process – had he lived to see it.

*

It’s election time – Afghanistan’s fourth presidential poll since the Taliban fell – and Massoud’s brother, Ahmad Wali Massoud, is running for office.

An outrider in the contest, Wali’s campaign is focused on tackling corruption, improving representation for ethnic minorities, and ensuring negotiations with the Taliban take place from a position of relative strength.

Evidence of ballot stuffing, intimidation, and other acts of electoral fraud tend to be downplayed by Kabul’s Western backers, who are nowadays more interested in polling days passing without major incident than with earlier grand ideals of building a model democracy.

The September 28 election was a two-horse race between the favourite Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik former foreign minister and serving CEO, and the incumbent Ashraf Ghani, a Pashto former finance minister and World Bank anthropologist. The two men had effectively shared power since the disputed 2014 election after then-US secretary of state John Kerry helped broker a deal.

I went to see Wali at his home in central Kabul a few days before the Massoud Day bulletfest. The house, surrounded by concrete blast walls, is built in classical European style, with tasteful furnishings, magnolia walls, ornate wooden floors, and glass-panelled French windows opening out onto a neat little garden. Lining the walls are portraits of Ahmad Shah Massoud – his ghost a constant presence.

We are shown inside by Wali’s head of security – the very definition of a hardened Tajik warrior, who weighs us up with his lapis blue eyes, a smile creasing his weather-beaten face, hewn it seemed from the valley walls of Panjshir itself.

Wali strides into the living room. He is dressed in sky blue salwar kameez under a navy suit jacket, his receding hair swept back and flecked with grey, a closely trimmed moustache peppering his top lip. Like any skilled politician, he comes equipped with an easy smile and sturdy handshake.

I ask Wali why the Taliban has refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

“Well, for a very simple reason. Because the government of Afghanistan is weak. And no one talks to a weak body. And that is why they refuse,” he says.

Click here to read Rudaw’s full interview with Ahmad Wali Massoud

“If only we did have a strong government, of course the Taliban, branded as a terrorist group, they would never refuse to talk to a government. So because the government is weak, the Taliban feel they are stronger.”

A helicopter thumps overhead, causing the glass to rattle in the French windows.

“Yes people of Afghanistan are thirsty for peace. But peace, not a deal. Peace, not terrorism, not violence. Peace, not submission to a terrorist group,” he says over the din.

Many Kabulies I spoke to are afraid of losing civil liberties if the government strikes a peace deal with the Taliban. I ask Wali whether a compromise can be reached which ring-fences the rights of women, a free press, and a secular justice system. He has a habit of answering questions with yet more questions.

“When it comes to the real peace, how exactly can you solve these very contradictory values between the Taliban and the rest of the people of Afghanistan?” Wali asks with a theatrical shrug.

“What do you do with women’s rights? Taliban do not agree with women’s rights. What do you do with freedom of media and press? They don’t agree. What do you do with elections, with democracy? Because if the Taliban accept such things it means they have gone against their own values.”

He speaks quickly, sniffing loudly between breaths, often abandoning half formed sentences before leaping to the next, impatient to make his point heard.

“It means they have gone against all those, in their words, who were martyred, going against those values. They’re going against their own principal.”

“Don’t forget that, so far, since the creation of the Taliban till now, their position has not changed. Exactly the same thing as it was before. In anything, it has not changed. Nothing.”

And what about US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his potential deal with the Taliban?

“Have they stopped violence? No. More violence. More bloodshed. There are not terrorists anymore? There are. So it’s a deal with the Taliban. It’s got nothing to do with peace for Afghanistan,” Wali says, unable to hide his disdain.

“When the United States came here 19 years ago, said ok, we want to root out terrorism, we’re against these things, what has changed all of a sudden? They want to strike a deal without taking into consideration the interests of Afghan people. What exactly has changed?”

Suddenly Massoud’s ghost has joined us in Wali’s living room. From beyond the veil of death, again comes the prescient warning.

“We should not make the mistake of 1989 once again to leave Afghanistan by itself,” Wali says urgently. “We should not make the mistake of dealing with a terrorist group. We should not put the whole situation in Afghanistan and in the region into jeopardy here. Tomorrow we will regret it. The whole world will regret it.”

“Exactly what my brother warned when he went to Europe in 2001. He said today it’s our problem, tomorrow it will be your problem. Exactly that’s what happened.”

“So what I’m trying to say here, we should not make Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorists. Tomorrow it will end up worldwide. It will affect every citizen of every country.”

*

It’s September 11, 2019 – 18 years to the day since the 9/11 attacks – and I’m back outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, saying my goodbyes to Saleem and the crew. I’m not a superstitious man, but even I feel a twinge of discomfort at the thought of travelling on this date – especially out of Afghanistan where the scheme was hatched.

I thank my new friends for their work. I’m thrilled with the footage we’ve gathered together and tell them so. An awkward silence follows. I’m suddenly embarrassed, aware I get to leave this place, my passport a ticket to safety. Fixers and local crews who live in conflict zones don’t have this luxury, shouldering all the risk and sharing none of the reward.

I pass through the first of many security barriers and cross the baking hot car park. A gigantic portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud looks down gloomily from the terminal entrance. He watches me leave.

The author (left) with Saleem Yousofzada, Kabul, September 2019. Photo: Hassan Nikzad